Altrusa International, Inc. might not have the same name recognition as other service organizations, but members have been serving the area through the Portland club for ninety years. In Windham, the club has been putting books in the hands of all kindergarten students for three years now.
Altrusa of Portland is one of 17 clubs in District One, which includes New England, Eastern Canada and Bermuda. In Maine, there are four Altrusa clubs. Altrusa of Portland has 39 members, including several from the Lakes Region.
For twenty-five years, the Portland Altrusa club has participated in the ABC Literacy Program. Members read a book to a kindergarten class and then give each child a book to take home, as well as giving the teacher a book for the classroom.
Club treasurer Wanda Pettersen joined the club after she retired. She learned about The ABC Literacy Program, which was happening in every Portland, South Portland and Westbrook kindergarten classroom at the time, and wanted to bring it to Windham, where she lives. After making sure there were members from the area willing to do the reading, she contacted the principal at Windham Primary School to get the program started.
This is the third year that Altrusa of Portland has brought the ABC Literacy Program to all 11 kindergarten classes at Windham Primary School. “It’s so much fun. The kids love it,” Pettersen said.
“The children’s faces, when they learn they’re going to get to keep a book – it’s priceless,” added Club Director Debbie Lemieux.
Children are given a choice of several books to choose from, so they can select something that matches their interests. Pettersen said she was surprised at how many children told her they didn’t have any books at home. “They are just delighted to think that they have a book of their own that they can bring home. It is amazing how many families don’t have books,” she said.
Books A Million is Altrusa’s main partner for acquiring books, Pettersen said. The store conducts book drives at the cash registers, and then donates those books to Altrusa.
Lemieux said the club has given away an average of 100,000 books per year both through the ABC program and other avenues. In December, they wrapped books and gave them to area organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, she said.
They give board books to Head Start programs, and members donate books that are then given to Long Creek Youth Development Center, The Cumberland County Jail and the Windham Correctional Center.
Literacy is something the club focuses on, but they also participate in other service activities. Last year, they started sponsoring a high school club, called ASTRA, at Lakes Region High School. This is the first ASTRA club in Maine and one of just two in New England. The students have weekly meetings and participate in fundraisers and service projects – including going into Sebago schools to do the ABC literacy program. The ASTRA club has about 25 student members. “We’re very proud of our Astrans,” Lemieux said.
Other club activities include maintaining a memory garden at the Barron Center in Portland, serving meals at the Ronald McDonald House and for Wayside Community Programs, giving scholarships, and holding a fundraising event for Project FEED.
One of their biggest fundraisers each year is a show by comedian Bob Marley. Marley, whose mother is an Altrusan, donates his time to the cause. This year, the show is on Wednesday, May 8 at Keeley’s Banquet Center in Portland. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at Eventbrite, on Keeley’s Facebook page, or through an Altrusan.
Altrusa of Portland is always looking for new members with fresh ideas, Lemieux said. Meetings are held on the first and third Wednesday of each month. The first meeting is a business meeting held at the Clarion Hotel, and the second is a dinner and program held at the Fireside Inn. For more information, contact the club at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page, Altrusa International – Portland, Maine Club.